Kids’ Mental Health Suffering from Gun Violence Exposure

New Lurie Children’s Hospital survey points to a need for action on gun safety and community action, with more kids scared and worried.

The kids getting shot in Chicago aren’t the only ones being hurt by Chicago’s gun violence. A recent Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital Voice of Child Health survey found that 1 in 4 kids are hearing gunshots while at home and 1 in 5 kids are seeing their mental health suffer due to gun violence exposure.

Dr. Samaa Kemal and Dr. Tyler Lennon, pediatric emergency fellows at Lurie, say kids who have direct exposure to gun violence – hearing it, witnessing it, being a victim of it – are ten times more likely to see their mental health suffer compared to kids not being exposed to gun violence. The survey included parents from all 77 community areas in Chicago.

“The general exposure to gun violence is much more pervasive than we expected,” Kemal says, adding it’s an important message and call to action for all parents.

“While the numbers are higher on the south and west sides, in every single quadrant of Chicago children are being impacted by gun violence. I think it’s really important that parents understand that it’s not just certain types of children, but it is every child who is being impacted in one way or another,” she says.

She and Lennon urge parents to talk with their kids about gun violence – and not be afraid to bring up the topic or use the word “gun.” “It’s better to have the leadership and mentorship from their parents to guide them through really complicated topics about gun violence,” Kemal says.

Start the conversation

Lennon suggests the best first step is creating a safe space for kids to process the trauma while knowing they are being supported by their parents or guardians. It’s critically important to keep an open dialogue, talking about what they are experiencing and what they are feeling, he says.

“I think it’s important to bring up the topic. Don’t wait,” he says, particularly with so much media coverage over the issue. “We really don’t want the TV to do the talking to kids. The reality is that kids are being exposed and we should prompt kids and ask them what are their thoughts on this topic, what are they witnessing, what are their friends and peers talking about at school.”

It doesn’t have to be complicated to start the conversation. He suggests parents ask for their thoughts and what they are feeling as they see something on TV or if they hear something happening in the community.

“Too often we try to beat around the bush on the topic. We don’t give kids enough credit. They know what they are being exposed to and it’s our job as parents, pediatricians and community leaders to help them process that trauma. I think just asking straightforward questions and it’s OK to use the word gun and OK to use the word shooting,” Lennon says.

Add in a mentor

Another factor in helping kids process trauma and not engage in gun violence is having a loving mentor, whether in the community or in the family, he says.

Signs to watch if your child has been exposed to gun violence for include seeing your child become more anxious and have difficulty concentrating in school. Kids may know they feel off, but may not be able to pinpoint what’s causing it, she says.

The fact is gun violence is preventable, Kemal says, adding that it is “horrific” it is now the leading cause of death for children.

Not only are kids dying, but they are being impacted in so many more ways, she says. That, along with the current mental health crisis, is motivating her and Lennon to work harder to make sure people understand this is a serious problem and to seek out solutions.

Lennon says it’s unfortunate the topic of gun violence is so political and polarizing because it doesn’t have to be. The U.S. has seen other public health problems bring on changes that can make a real difference, such as in reducing the number of motor vehicle crash deaths that used to hold the No. 1 spot for children’s deaths.

Both Lennon and Kemal say Illinois and the nation need a significant community voice to “light a fire” under politicians to protect kids, including passing an assault weapons ban. “The more people can demand change, the sooner we get change,” Lennon says.

The Lurie Voice of Child Health survey found that a lot of parents agree on other measures that may help reduce gun violence exposure in Chicago – 57 percent supported community-based violence intervention programs, 55 percent supported increasing job opportunities for youth, 53 percent supported increasing mentoring opportunities and creating more safe outdoor places and 52 percent supported increasing after-school opportunities.

“The parental parent voice is very important in demanding the changes for our kids, I think it actually makes a huge difference and many people have good ideas. It just requires forming that collective voice,” Kemal says.

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